The D.C. Public Charter School Board might soon close the Ideal Academy Public Charter School, more than a year and a half after I told it to.
When I made that suggestion in a December 2009 column, Ideal was a prime example of a charter school overdue for termination. Its high school, after four years, had shown that most of its students would be better off elsewhere.
“Of the 31 sophomores who took the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test in math last spring,” I said then, “only 25.8 percent scored at the proficient level or above. Only 38.7 percent reached that level in reading. Among secondary schools [in the District], only six regular schools and two charter schools had lower math proficiency rates. Only 11 regular schools and three charters were worse in reading proficiency.”
Charter schools are public schools, often started by educators and parents dissatisfied with regular schools. They are typically independent of many district rules. President Obama has been telling charter authorizers — mostly city, state and university boards — to get rid of stinkers. The nonprofit group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) has also been urging the D.C. Public Charter School Board in that direction, and might succeed if Ideal closes. Did it have to take so long? I don’t think so.
Two years ago, Ideal was clearly a loser, but as often happens, unjustifiable optimism intruded. Thomas Nida, then chairman of the D.C. charter school board, told me his board had not had enough time to turn Ideal around. His board, independent of the D.C. school system, had just assumed responsibility for Ideal and several other charters. They had previously been authorized and supervised by the D.C. school board, which never liked dealing with charter schools and was not good at it. I understand why public-spirited people such as Nida didn’t want to dump Ideal too quickly, but they were wrong to entertain false hopes when the school’s awkward rhythms and low expectations were pretty much set.
More than 80 percent of Ideal’s students are from low-income families. But that’s also true for charter high schools, such as Hyde and SEED, with much higher proficiency rates. There was no major change in Ideal’s methods and philosophy that might have cured its inertia and apathy. The year after I spoke to Nida, the school’s proficiency rates were virtually unchanged — down three percentage points in reading and up two in math. Ideal’s elementary and middle school at another location still had math and reading proficiency rates below 50 percent.
The board voted in March to begin the process of revoking Ideal’s charter. Its final decision is expected this month.
According to FOCUS, 37 percent of D.C. charter schools have been closed since the first one opened in 1996. Nationally, federal data show that 27 percent of 6,725 charters opened in the past 20 years have closed. Those are much higher closure rates than would occur in a regular school district. Robert Cane, FOCUS executive director, rightly calls it “a signal to parents and others that we mean business.”
But why stop there? The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University reported in 2009 that only 17 percent of charter schools had academic gains significantly better than regular public schools, 37 percent were worse and 46 percent were about the same. Closing more bad charters, and doing it faster than is being done with Ideal, would improve that track record.
This is one of the great advantages charters have over regular school systems, where communities heatedly resist closing anything. Why not use it? The Stanford study found that charter school achievement gains were greater in states that did not limit the number of charters that could be authorized. So let’s not limit closing charters, either. If we stop waiting for unlikely miracles, we will have fewer students wasting their time at schools as un-ideal as Ideal.